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  • Evangelia Papoutsaki

Jamaica: Rasta, Bob and Reggae

University of West Indies, Mona campus, Kingston; vast and beautiful, tropical and a site for exploration, the grounds of a colonial sugar cane plantation remnants of which you still see around and a site that reminds its visitors about its former slave inhabitants whose descendants might be on campus studying or teaching today. Passing through a park I noticed it was dedicated to the prime ministers who had studied at UWI (I must find how many!)

I found a fruit stand and bought a papaya whose taste reminded me of my years in Papua New Guinea and despite the fact that this in in the Caribbean and PNG in the Pacific, I could still feel a connection between the two, and me in between trying to find a sense of familiarly in my new location. I haven’t had a papaya as sweet and as aromatic since I left PNG, you need the tropics for such sweetness, for such aroma and need to eat it on location too. The fruit seller asked me to take a photo and put it on Instagram giving the location of his stand, he thought of me perhaps as one of those “influencers”’? I don’t have an Instagram account, so here it is on my blog. I have a week on campus while convening the SICRI conference, so I’ve solved my fresh papaya breakfast need.

I finally met Bob at his home in Kingston and Bob said to me not to worry, to be happy, “when you worry you make it double” and I said to Bob, “ya man, yuh right”!

Part of the conference cultural tour, a ‘must’ visit to Jamaica’s most celebrated son’s house, now museum, turned up to be the best ever tour, entertaining, engaging, funny, inspiring, informative, spiritual and so much more. The legacy of this man lives today in the body of his work that keeps inspiring us in its universal message of acceptance and standing for our right. So I was re-energized so to speak but at the same time I kind of felt a bit of an existential angst at the end of the short film on his life with him saying “my life is for other people”. Ya man, yuh right but that’s a hard path. Not in possession of a great talent as his, I am condemned to a life of “averageness” and that stings...

And on a lighter tone, impressed as I was at how he managed to have 12 children, I asked the museum guide how did he achieve that while being married to one woman and before dying at the young age of 36 only to be scold that Bob did not die! Huh? I thought oh man, these Rastafarians have really idolized Bob Marley so much so that that they refuse to accept his death. Well, turns out for Rastas only a bad person dies, someone like Bob he just passes, as his positive impact on people continues. I’ll take that, so keep it in mind when I say someone died...

[note 1: turns out he only fathered 3-4 kids with his wife, for the remaining he just “spread the love”...impressively 5 of them turned up to become multi-Grammy award winners, so it’s in the Marley genes it seems]

[note 2: “All desent governments and dis this and that, these people that say they’re here to help, why them say you cannot smoke the herb? Herb… herb is a plant, you know? And when me check it, me can’t find no reason.” “All them say is, ‘it make you rebel’. Against what?”—Interview (1979) with Dylan Taite in Aotearoa, New Zealand.]

Down town Kingston is a riot of sounds and colours. While walking around the busy streets listening to loudly playing songs, I notice I was the only, visibly at least, foreigner and that photos or videos were not kindly taken. So the little video I shot was with my camera held low and very discretely. Jamaica is a big tourist destination but almost all tourist traffic is directed to the big resorts which keep you in and cater to all your needs, feeding the atmosphere of fear about Kingston as a violent place. Very few tourists stop in Kingston, I was the only person other than a family of Americans at the National Gallery of Jamaica which was a special treat of sorts, a kind of private viewing but what does that say about Kingston? So I decided to brave down town just because I refuse to give in to the politics of fear and I was rewarded with rich images of everyday commerce and local art.

They say you can’t take your possessions to your grave but clearly the inhabitants of this graveyard in Kingston thought otherwise! The May Pen cemetery in Trench Town is known for its grave displays and somehow we lucked out with this local guy from the Culture Yard across the street who was completely stoned (he had previously tried to serenade us with Bob Marley’s songs) but happy to help us cross the road (we did need help as the driving was crazy) and introduce us to the grave occupiers and their passions while alive, many of who he knew personally. Apparently this is not a very safe part of Kingston and photographers who want to come here are discouraged to do so. So we were lucky in both our ignorance and our serendipitous encounter with a stoned Kingstonian who acted as our impromptu grave guide!

Valia in Rastafarian vegan eatery heaven: ‘Ital’ vegan cooking is part of the Rasta philosophy and while Ibo Spice Portal on Orange st in Kingston looks like a hole in the wall that you can easily miss, it hides behind it a back yard and another world of taste. The Rasta cook showed us the ingredients used in their cuisine, including cactus flowers and ackee and prepared for us a snack that was just awesome with freshly grounded Jamaican coffee. Rastas eat a natural diet free from additives, chemicals and meat as a way of staying healthy and spiritually connected to the earth. I think I found my religion: reggae, dreadlocks and vegan food and Bob of course is my God!

Experiencing street art in Kingston: a visit to Fleet St and the Life Yard project was a moment of inspiration. In a serendipitous way, a filmmaker sitting behind me at a film screening at UWI heard me asking how to get there. He offered to put me in touch with one of his friends working there and that’s how we found ourselves spending time with this awesome group of Rastafarians that are serving their community through their art, training and feeding the kids programs, keeping them off the streets and mischief and ensuring they finish school while getting some crafts making training. They cooked for us a dish of ackee in their vegan style cooking, showed us around, entertained us with music and dance and farewelled us like old friends. Their friendliness, dedication, “coolness”, and generosity inspired me and once again I found myself feeling “inadequate” wishing I was rather working at Life Yard engaging directly with the community, especially through the art. If you ever make it to Kingston, make the trip to Fleet St, it will inspire you! And make sure you see that mural of the Great Wombmen (celebrating women’s womb)! They were the only people that understood what I meant when I said I come from my mother’s womb as an answer to the ever annoying question “where do you come from”. Yah man, they said, yuh right, we all come from the great womb! I loved them!

Trench Town is a national cultural site in Kingston, an intensive cultural laboratory that produced reggae and Bob Marley. A post-war social housing scheme whose inner yards that brought together several families became the fertilizing ground of the music of discontent and marginalization but also hope. Looking at the map of the area and the housing estates one can count the former homes of so many of reggae’s legends. Each tiny room was the home a family all of whom shared toilets and a kitchen. Today Trench Town continues to be a place for the poor and marginalized, not a very safe place to visit, one that stands diametrically opposed to those affluent up on the hills residences of Kingston. So much poverty and so much richness in one place. The visit to Trench Town put into context Marley’s journey and the social/historical conditions of his music. Following the trail down town to Orange St and the music studios of Kingston showed that the legacy of that era continues. As the manager of one Studio said, reggae is diachronic, it will always have an appeal because the issues it was touching then are still current today.

Port Antonio: I learned how to deal with the sudden tropical downpour that is typical in this part of the island this morning when walking to town by following what the locals did, just find a shelter and wait it out, it doesn’t last long so why get wet! It took me sometime though to get the signs of impeding rain and in between shelters I got rather wet. So I found a variety store after asking fellow shelter rain seekers who seemed to have to think hard about where you get an umbrella (remember locals just tend to find shelter and wait for it to pass). After purchasing one with a Scottish tartan pattern (my only choice), I ventured out to explore the town more confidently. A few blocks and a pair of sodden shoes away, I walked into another store and bought flip flops from a very young looking Chinese man that looked like he was a teenager but acted very assertive. So with my umbrella and flip flops I was a Queen in Port Antonio. I walked around, standing out in the crowd like a fly in a milk glass and not not just with my paleness, but this is one place that’s hard to simulate ‘localness’. Jamaicans are definitely a species of their own, deceptively simple but rather complex and multilayered and very proud, at times treating me with guarded distance and at times with great familiarity, friendliness and generosity.

So I went around exploring this town and its stunningly beautiful natural harbor, the variety shops, Coronation Bakery, the covered market, the craft village, the marina and gradually I started getting a sense of this place and its people. it reminded much of Madang in the north coast of Papua New Guinea. Those I had met in various encounters during the day would greet me when encountering me again asking questions if I had got what I wanted etc. And a man came up as I was walking back asking me if I was new in town since I had an umbrella open when it was sunny... well, I had reckoned that the umbrella was as good an investment for the rain as for the blistering sun.

A good day in the Caribbean that ended with a great dinner cooked by Sharleen at the Craft Village by the bay who seems to care about her food and customers. I started talking of elephants and she ended up with a passionate sermon, praise the Lord! On the way out I passed by to say goodnight to Rock Bottom, the local well known artist who carves drift wood he finds on the beach and whom I had met in the morning. He greeted me back with the power, love, respect hand gesture which I am still trying to master. I will get it right before I leave.

When the men of Skarð saw the horned moon,

perched on the mountain above the village,

they talked amongst themselves, saying,

“if we can only capture the moon and cage it

in our central square, its silver light will keep us

through the long winter dark.” So they climbed up

with fishing nets and ropes, stepping cautiously

over the loose talus so as not to spook the moon

with clattering rocks. When it began to edge away,

they tried coaxing the moon and promised it every nice thing —butter and sugar, salted cod and rhubarb preserves —if only it would stay.

But the moon would not listen and skipped away to the ridge of the next island just as they reached the peak.

By Mathew Landrum “Self Portrait”

Photo: Port Antonio Jamaica showing the driftwood sculpt art by Rock Bottom at Craft Village

I wanted to visit Winnifred Beach at Fairy Hill not because of its natural beauty - beautiful as it it, it’s not the only one of stunning beauty this side of Jamaica - but because of the story that goes with it: one that shows the determination of the community to fight the government to be put on the land title and succeeding in the end. This followed a trend in Jamaica of public beaches sold to private developers where you have to pay for access. I experienced this a few times and started wondering what’s going on, why on an island blessed with so many amazing beaches locals need to pay to access them while on their very own island. So I made it up there today and got to talk to a few local people who seem to run the beach in a communal way, there are some stalls and locals can benefit from selling food, crafts, swimming gear etc. The beach had a nice mix of visitors and locals, stray but harmless dogs and families all mixing in a normal island beach atmosphere that is so different to those gated ones. All is possible when a community comes together. Needless to say I ended up supporting the local economy with a few items so persuasively brought to my attention which is all good, since everyone shared their time so generously with me.

It’s a dog’s life...or life’s a ‘beach’?

What can possibly come after Jamaica that can beat its kaleidoscope of soundtracks, flavors, colors, breathtaking islandscapes, multilayered island society, and fascinating island inhabitants? Surely everything else will taste bland and feel monotonous, too tame, too safe. Just as I was boarding my flight to Miami from Kingston, it really hit me that I will miss this Caribbean island that captured all my senses from the moment I stepped out of the plane. Its intensity almost grabs you by the throat, demanding your full attention, even its stunning natural beauty is intense. I met some fascinating characters, like this Italian Rasta shiatsu practitioner in Port Antonio who offered me a “herb” smoke after the shiatsu session while he played a selective mix of reggae versions of well-known music. I challenge you to come up with a better massage story! Or the driver that took me around, with his profound insights on poverty and inequality, religion, the legacies of colonialism and slave trade, politics of skin color, violence and sex on the island. That was an education by itself! Or the wood sculptor making carved art from drift wood with a name of Rock Bottom. A long list of characters, encounters, and sounds of island music at the foreground of every public or private space. Having no expectations of Jamaica and a desire to let the island tell me its own story, I was taken on an unexpected ride that left me wanting for more! Islandeering at its best...


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